Saturday, July 21, 2018

Classics: A Review of To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar By Lauren Ennis

Three friends, thousands of miles, and one national drag competition; what could possibly go wrong? It is this very question that is the premise of the 1995 cult classic To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. The film hilariously follows the hijinks that three very different New York drag queens find themselves in when they hit the open road only to be stranded in the heart of the midwest. While time has made the story’s shenanigans more sweet than subversive, the film’s humor remains every bit as infectious as the day that it reached number one at the box office. For a frothy cocktail of friendship, laughter, and compassion viewers can thank the film’s stars, Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo…and maybe Wong Foo.

The story begins with drag queens Vida Boheme (Patrick Swayze) and Noxeema Jackson (Wesley Snipes) tying for first place in the “Drag Queen of the Year” competition, winning a trip to Hollywood to compete in the “Miss Drag Queen of America” pageant. Along the way they meet inexperienced and despondent would-be drag queen Chi Chi Rodriguez (John Leguizamo). Vida, determined to help Chi Chi reach her full drag queen potential, takes Chi Chi under her wing and persuades Noxeema to let the newcomer join them on their trip. The three form a fast friendship that is quickly tested when their car breaks down, stranding them in an ultra-conservative Midwestern town. The trio then embark upon an adventure that is equal parts hilarious and heartwarming as they teach the residents lessons in tolerance, empowerment, and pizzazz.

Through its fish out of water tale the film confronts viewers with vital lessons in tolerance and empowerment without missing a single comedic beat. The focus upon its three heroines provided 1990’s viewers with an, empathetic if exaggerated, glimpse into the LBGT community. While the film was a far cry from the heavy hitting dramas that would tackle this subject in the future, it still succeeded in shedding light upon a community that film and television had largely ignored. The film particularly stands out for the depth with which each of its very different leading ladies is portrayed, as each struggles with her own search for her place in the world without falling into stereotypes or caricature. As a result, the film’s portrayal of its leads as admirable, likeable, and relatable characters acts as an apt call to tolerance without reducing the script to heavy-handedness or lecturing. Similarly, the film aptly portrays the struggle of modern women as the local ladies that our heroines encounter are continually faced with the limits of gender roles, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse. While the inclusion of these obstacles highlighted vital social issues, the film is at its most empowering when Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi embrace their own unique selves and inspire their new friends to do the same. In this way, the film encourages viewers to not only strive beyond their own limits but to also help those around them do the same. Thus, while its story may be slapstick on the surface, To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is a film with crucial messages that will resonate long after the laughs fade.

The films shines thanks to the brilliant work of its cast. Jason London is endearing in his chivalrous turn as Chi Chi’s small-town admirer, Bobby Ray. Stockard Channing imbues her role as abused housewife Carol Anne with an essential resilience and sympathy. Jennifer Milmore is a delight as Carol Anne’s sheltered daughter, Bobbie Leigh. Chris Penn is an ideal villain in his equal parts bumbling and brutal portrayal of bigoted Sheriff Dollard. Even in the midst of stellar supporting performances, however, the film’s crowning achievements belong to Swayze, Snipes, and Leguizamo who carry their unusual roles with infectious charm. Wesley Snipes is superb in his role as sassy Noxeema as he plays her cynical persona and inner idealism with equal aplomb. John Leguizamo infuses sultry Chi Chi with particular depth as he portrays her struggles to navigate both the drag subculture, and her fraught love life. Patrick Swayze brings Vida to vibrant life as he imbues her every larger than life action and gesture with just the right dash of 1990s girl power.

As one of the most wonderfully whimsical films of the 1990’s To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar more than earns its status as a cult classic. Through its by turns slapstick and heartfelt script and engaging performances the film is guaranteed to leave you with a smile on your face. Hit the road with Vida, Noxeema, and Chi Chi for a viewing experience that you will be sure to thank yourself for.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Classics: A Review of Lilo and Stitch By Lauren Ennis

After nearly a century of animated adventures Walt Disney Studios has become synonymous with the magic of childhood. While the studio is best remembered for its beloved, but often formulaic tales of larger than life heroes and beautiful princesses the studio has also released numerous more original, if less renowned, efforts. One of the studio’s most unique but unfortunately unsung releases is the endearingly offbeat tale of an eccentric girl and her unusual pet; 2002’s Lilo and Stitch. At once a break with the conventions that the studio is best known for and a return to its roots, Lilo and Stitch is an ode to childhood that puts the ‘family’ in ‘family film’.

Ohana means family; family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten
The story starts with a truly out of this world beginning as an inter-galactic council decides the fate of genetic experiment number 626; a furry weapon of mass destruction gone adorably awry. The council ultimately sentences 626’s creator to prison while 626 himself is placed on death row. Fortunately for viewers if not for the council, 626 is far more resourceful than his wide eyes would suggest, and he quickly escapes to the distant planet earth.  After crash landing in Hawaii, 626 bides his time hiding in an animal shelter where he is mistaken for a dog. Meanwhile, unconventional young Lilo and her older sister, Nani, struggle to cope with the recent deaths of their parents. When Lilo’s oddball behavior derails the pair’s interview with a street-smart social worker, Nani desperately searches for a way to manage her sister and make their empty house back into a home. This search ultimately leads the sisters to the local animal shelter where Lilo immediately attaches herself to its most notorious animal; none other than 626 whom she dubs ‘Stitch’. The unlikely trio then embark upon an series of madcap adventures as Stitch tries to stay one step ahead of galactic bounty-hunters while Lilo and Nani struggle to win over their social worker. Over the course of the film both Lilo and Stitch take a journey into the deepest depths of the human heart as they learn the true meaning of family.

Released between the end of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ of the 1990’s and the rise of Pixar’s now dominant computer animation, Lilo and Stitch arrived at a time when Disney had reached a crucial crossroads. When the fairytale formula that the studio had come to rely upon began to lose its luster the studio was forced to re-evaluate its position in a changing market. During this period of transition the studio needed to find a way to break new ground without alienating its established fan base. In an effort to strike this difficult balance the studio looked both ahead to the futuristic adventures of sci-fi while simultaneously seeking inspiration from some of its own pre-1990’s classics. The result was a film that remains unlike anything else in the Disney cannon.

I bet Lassie doesn't have those moves
The film’s greatest strength lies in the way in which it takes the familiar Disney elements that fans know and love and subverts them into something entirely unique. For example the use of traditional watercolor animation brilliantly captures the lush landscapes of modern Hawaii, while harkening back to such pre-computer studio classics as Dumbo. Simultaneously, however, the animators also lend the visuals a refreshingly modern twist through the character designs, with heroines who have realistic proportions and curves that are a stark departure from the studio’s Barbie-esque princesses. Similarly, the plot merges both the old and new by juxtaposing the science fiction action of Stitch’s adventure with the timeless tale of a lonely child and her pet to create a story that will have something for the entire family. Even the film’s soundtrack, a toe-tapping blend of modern Hawaiian and classic Elvis, adds a unique dynamic as it transports viewers into the characters’ world and mentality (grieving Lilo seeks solace in the music of her hero, Elvis), while breaking with Disney’s tradition of Broadway style show-tunes. The script’s greatest departure from studio tradition lends the film its most endearing aspect; the depth and realism of its characters. Unlike traditional Disney characters who were designed to provide young viewers with idealized role models, Lilo, Stitch, and Nani are characters who children can relate to rather than merely aspire to. While all of the characters prove likeable, each possesses flaws and quirks, which in turn keeps their often outlandish journey grounded in realism. As a result, viewers will be bound to see many of their own experiences reflected in misunderstood Lilo, stressed-out Nani, and destructive Stitch, and can easily find inspiration in the characters’ eventual triumphs. Originally advertised as Disney’s ‘black sheep’, this story of a girl and her ‘dog’ gleefully dances to the beat of its own ukulele, earning it a place amongst the best in American animation.

Easily one of the most original films released by Disney, Lilo and Stitch is an ode to anyone who couldn’t fit in because they were born to stand out. Through its breathtaking animation, infectious music, and engaging voice performances, the film weaves a fantastic tale that pays apt tribute to the best Disney classics while still breaking new ground in family animation. For an animated adventure with a little more action, join Lilo and Stitch for a truly out of this world animation experience that is guaranteed to satisfy.

Now that is what I call a rockin' soundtrack

Friday, June 22, 2018

Classics: A Review of Sons of Liberty By Lauren Ennis

This July 4th will mark two-hundred and forty two years since the Declaration of Independence was signed and a new republic was born. In recognition and celebration of the innovations and sacrifices of our founders, this week I’ll be turning the spotlight on a miniseries that puts the rebel in rebellion; 2015’s Sons of Liberty. Easily one of the grittiest portrayals of colonial America, the series chronicles the events leading up to the American Revolution with all of the suspense, romance, and raw emotion that your history class left out.

The original Boston Strong
The story begins with Boston in a state of upheaval as the streets descend into poverty, gang violence, and a crime epidemic under the by turns indifferent and brutal rule of colonial England. Amidst this tumult, local tax collector Sam Adams (Ben Barnes) attempts to help those in need by using his own limited funds to pay the tax debts of friends and local business owners. Despite his good intentions, Adams’ attempts at philanthropy leave him unable to pay his own taxes, leading the British authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest. When his failed arrest prompts a riot that destroys the governor’s mansion, he quickly finds himself the unlikely center of a local movement. Meanwhile, local businessman John Hancock (Rafe Spall), Sam’s cousin, lawyer John Adams (Henry Thomas), and Doctor Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold) each find themselves at a crossroads as events unfold that force each of them to question the status quo and choose which side of history they want to be on.

When the series debuted, the History Channel promoted it with the tagline; “there’s the revolution you know. And the one that’s about to begin”. Through its unique approach the series more than lived up to its promotion by providing an insider’s look at the conflicted and complicated men behind the American Revolution. In this way, the series helps breathe new life into the events of 1776 in a way that highlights just what was so revolutionary about the ideals that the colonists were fighting for. Critics and historians rightly cited the series’ tendency to place entertainment value above historical accuracy. The series’ makers defended their work by insisting that their primary goal was to capture the spirit of the era rather than document it; a goal that they certainly achieved. Although the series more aptly serves as an engaging overview than a history lesson, it aptly portrays brings colonial America to gritty life for a new generation. For a viewing thrill ride that will teach you a few things along the way, ship up to Boston with the Sons of Liberty.

Don't tread on me!
  The cast bring colonial America to vibrant life through their stellar performances. Ben Barnes’ roguishly charming performance transforms Sam Adams into a colonial Robin Hood as he rises up against the British ruling class for his fellow colonists. Rafe Squall is an ideal underdog as reluctant rebel John Hancock, and portrays Hancock’s surprising journey with a nuance that ensures his performance is as believable as it is entertaining. Henry Thomas is a perfect foil to Barnes’ reckless Sam in his turn as Sam’s upright but conflicted cousin, John. Ryan Eggold is a story-book worthy hero in his portrayal of noble Doctor Warren. Martin Csokas is an ideal villain in his portrayal of chillingly brutal British general Thomas Gage. Emily Berrington infuses her role as Gage’s battered wife turned Warren’s illicit love interest, Margaret, with an intelligence and spunk that will endear her to audiences as much as they do to the good doctor.

Sons of Liberty aptly brings the American Revolution to life with a modern flair. Through its gritty portrayal of the events leading up to the revolution the series provides viewers with essential insight into the founding fathers’ motives, sacrifices, and truly revolutionary ideas. The series’ combination of an intelligent script and engaging performances will leave even those who hated history class wanting more. For a mini-series that puts the drama in historical drama settle down for a Boston-style tea party with the Sons of Liberty.

Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave...

Monday, June 11, 2018

Classics: A Review of An American Rhapsody By Lauren Ennis

One generation’s sacrifices and hopes all too often prove to be the restraints and burdens of another. This is particularly true in immigrant families, as the traditions and struggles of one generation collide with the aspirations of another. The universal clash between parents and children is explored with particular poignancy in the 2001 drama An American Rhapsody. Although inspired by the real-life experiences of director Eva Gardos and her parents, who fled the oppression of life behind the Iron Curtain, An American Rhapsody is a universal tale of identity and family that will resonate with children and parents alike.

Get the hankies ready
The story begins in 1950’s Budapest as Margit (Natassja Kinski) and Peter Sandor (Tony Goldwyn) plan to escape from Soviet-occupied Hungary with their two young daughters. When their plan goes heart-wrenchingly awry, Margit’s mother is imprisoned for her role in aiding the family’s escape and the couple’s youngest daughter, Suzanne, is left behind to be raised by a couple in the Hungarian countryside. Although Margit and Peter maintain contact with Suzanne’s foster family, she spends her first six years largely unaware of her biological family’s existence. After years of struggling, Margit and Peter are finally reunited with their daughter in the United States, but the reunion proves far more complicated than anyone anticipated as Suzanne continues to long for the only life and family that she has ever known. Cultures and generations clash as Suzanne grows into a rebellious teenager and continues to reject her biological family, who she can neither understand nor forgive. When tensions between mother and daughter finally bring the family to their breaking point, Suzanne makes a life-altering journey back to Hungary where she uncovers vital truths about both of her families and herself.

An American Rhapsody follows in the tradition of such family dramas as The Joy Luck Club and The Namesake in its tale of one family’s struggle to bridge the gap between drastically different cultures and generations. The film aptly portrays the oppression that the Sandors face in Communist Hungary, where they lose their successful publishing company to the control of the state and loved ones to the horrors of the gulags. The film avoids the trap of idealizing the family’s new life in the U.S., however, by depicting their struggles to fit into their new home amidst the conformity and anti-communist sentiments of 1950’s America with equal skill.  The script cleverly juxtaposes the gritty reality of Peter and Margit’s Budapest with the idealized childhood fantasy of Hungary that Suzanne nostalgically longs for. Simultaneously, the film also conveys the family’s very different perceptions of their new home, which Peter and Margit view as the land of opportunity and Suzanne sees as a gilded prison. Through its dual perspectives the film aptly conveys the complex reality of the family’s unusual situation, in which there are no easy answers amidst years of misunderstandings and missed opportunities. It is through this subtle portrayal of cultural and generational conflict that An American Rhapsody relates a tale which is sure to resonate with children and parents across America and beyond.

Back in the USSR...
Through its uniformly excellent performances, the film weaves a tapestry of love and heartache that spans across cultures and generations. Natassja Kinski turns in an achingly real performance as she captures Margit’s longing for the daughter who remains just beyond her reach. Tony Goldwyn aptly portrays Peter’s internal conflict as he struggles to build and maintain a better life for his family amidst personal and political tumult. Zsuzsa Czinkoczi and Balazs Galko are the personification of a loving family in their by turns endearing and anguished performances as the couple who love Suzanne as their own, only to ultimately lose her to her biological family. Scarlett Johannsen perfectly captures Suzanne’s angst and alienation as she grows from a confused and lonely child into a willful and headstrong teen. The supporting cast provide equally strong performances that are engaging from the film’s opening credits to its final fade.

At once a deeply personal story of one family and a universal tale of family life, An American Rhapsody is essential viewing for the entire family. Through its intelligent script and emotionally engaging performances the film captures the conflicts that threaten to break families apart and the love that binds them together. For a viewing experience that will take you inside the complex and contradictory rhapsody that is a family tune in to An American Rhapsody.

Not so different after all

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Classics: Another Memorial Day Salute By Lauren Ennis

Originally a Southern event designated to honor Confederate veterans of the Civil War, Memorial Day went on to become a nationally recognized holiday in the United States, which now honors all American veterans. While today the true meaning of the holiday is too often lost amidst the barbeques, beach days, and block parties that it has since become associated with, it remains at its heart a commemoration of the bravery and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform. Below are three films that celebrate and honor America’s men and women in arms and all that they stand for.

You say you want a revolution...
The Patriot: The best place to start with America’s military history is at the beginning, and the 2000 historical war drama The Patriot does just that through its wrenching tale of one man’s struggle to protect his family amidst the American Revolution. The story begins with emotionally scarred French and Indian War veteran Benjamin Martin (Mel Gibson) attempting to maintain neutrality in an increasingly conflicted world. While his war-time trauma and the death of his wife leave Benjamin determined that his family remain safely out of the bloody events surrounding them, his pacifism places him in direct conflict with his headstrong eldest son, Gabriel (Heath Ledger). Benjamin is eventually forced to choose sides when Gabriel defies him by enlisting in the Continental Army and is later arrested. The arrest sets off a brutal chain of events that ultimately lead father and son on a quest for more than mere revenge as they devote themselves to the colonies’ struggle for independence. Following in the footsteps of Mel Gibson’s earlier hit, Braveheart, the film portrays the harrowing reality of war and the heavy price paid by those caught in the cross-fire. In this way, the film not only pays homage to the courage of the Continental Army and its supporters, but also serves as an apt tribute to the sacrifices that they made in their pursuit of freedom. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its morally conflicted approach, which emphasizes the plight of the colonies under British rule without glorifying the gruesome reality of their fight for independence.  While the film serves as much to entertain as to educate it provides viewers with an introduction to the American Revolution and brings the historical events it portrays to life with equal parts gritty realism and emotional resonance. For a revolutionary way to honor Memorial Day look no further than The Patriot.

It's the eye of the tiger, it's the thrill of the fight...
Glory: The American Civil War is most often portrayed on-screen as the struggle between north and south over the abolition of slavery. What such narratives all too often fail to acknowledge, however, is the role that African-Americans played in the fight for emancipation. The 1989 film Glory, presents a more complex portrayal of the Civil War from the unique perspective of an all-black regiment and their abolitionist leader. Inspired by a true story, the film follows the real life 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, one of the Union Army’s first all-black regiments, as they face adversity both on and off the battlefield. The film begins with Boston abolitionist Captain Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick) being promoted to the rank of colonel for valor at Antietam and receiving orders to lead the 54th regiment. To the credit of the film’s writers, the script approaches the characters as an ensemble cast, giving full weight to the men who comprised the regiment rather than merely focusing upon Shaw’s leadership. The film is made up of a variety of three-dimensional performances rather than mere types, with standout performances from Matthew Broderick as Shaw, Morgan Freeman as insightful John Rawlins, and Denzel Washington as rebellious Silas Tripp. The film relates a more complicated tale than most war movies as it portrays its heroes’ efforts to struggle against racial discrimination in their own army in the midst of their larger battle against the Confederacy. The film is made even more complex by its bittersweet ending, as the majority of the regiment ultimately fall in the assault on Fort Wagner even as their valor prompts the Union Army to accept the enlistment of thousands of African-American soldiers. Through its engaging performances and intelligent script the film offers more than a mere history lesson and serves as a solemn tribute to the soldiers of the 54th regiment and those who followed after them.

Some of the grittiest stuff this side of 1950
The Best Years of Our Lives: While war dramas have graced cinema screens since the silent era, few films capture struglle that soldiers continue to face after the gunfire stops quite like The Best Years of Our Lives. Released in the immediate wake of World War II, The Best Years of Our Lives stands out from the plethora of war films released in its era for is stark portrayal of lingering trauma. The film follows three soldiers as they return to civilian life in the same Midwestern town while they continue to grapple with the traumas that they have suffered. The script aptly portrays the ways in which the war impacted people of all walks of life as middle-aged banker Al (Frederic March) returns home to a family who no longer know him, ambitious Fred (Dana Andrews) wrestles with both the plummeting job market and his broken marriage, and former high school athlete Homer (Harold Russell) adjusts to life with a disability after losing both hands in combat. The script approaches each of its characters and their individual journeys with an essential sensitivity and subtlety that provides apt insight into the trials of soldiers returning home not just from World War II but from every war. The film particularly stands out for its refusal to follow the propaganda film trends of its era in its focus upon the heavy price of freedom rather than limiting itself to the Allied victory. For one of the most emotionally resonant and honest film going experiences of your life look no further than The Best Years of Our Lives.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Classics: A Review of Notorious By Lauren Ennis

Nazi war criminals, jaded FBI agents, sultry playgirls, and a champagne bottle bubbling over with uranium mix nicely in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller Notorious. By combining the elements of the salacious Mata Hari legend with the horrors of World War II, Hitchcock crafted a thriller that highlighted America’s lingering fears in the aftermath of World War II while simultaneously predicting the moral dilemmas and paranoia of the Cold War. At once a mind-bending thriller and a spy story with a soul, the film’s subversive script and uniformly superb performances elevate what easily could have been a standard espionage tale to classic status.

And they were big pimpin' in the 1940's
The story begins with FBI agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) receiving orders to recruit the self-destructive daughter (Ingrid Bergman) of a notorious Nazi war criminal into government service. What begins as a standard assignment quickly spirals into a moral and ethical quandary as he finds himself falling for damaged party-girl Alicia. Just as Alicia begins to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, however, she learns the sordid nature of her assignment; to seduce one of her father’s former associates and fellow war criminals (Claude Rains) who is now living a charmed existence in Rio de Janeiro. What ensues is a tale of love, lust, betrayal, and redemption that takes viewers into the murky world of post-war intelligence and the darkest depths of the human heart.

While Notorious does contain staples of the espionage genre, what sets the film apart is the way in which it utilizes these familiar elements to explore the political and ethical questions of its day. At the film’s start the story’s moral lines seem clearly drawn as honorable federal agent Devlin offers disgraced Alicia a chance at redemption. As the story continues, however, the characters’ ethics become as convoluted as the spy games that they are engaging in as damaged Alicia becomes the film’s emotional center. Rather than focusing upon the greater good goal of her mission, the script frankly portrays Alicia’s assignment ass government endorsed prostitution with Devlin her reluctant pimp. This approach, while accurate, was nothing short of subversive in the tense atmosphere of the post-war era as the film called the war-time actions of allied governments into direct question. The film consistently maintains its political stance as its shows Alicia experience disillusionment, betrayal, and abandonment at the hands of the very government organization that claimed to protect and redeem her. The film even goes so far as to draw parallels between the brutal and deceptive methods of the ex-Nazi’s Alicia is infiltrating with the questionable counter-intelligence methods utilized by the FBI.

Explosive liquor; a surefire way to start your night off with a bang
Beyond its sharp political criticism, the film also offers social commentary through its portrayal of the twisted love triangle between Devlin, Alicia, and her mark turned husband, Alex. While Devlin is initially presented as the story’s hero, his treatment of Alicia is hardly knight in shining armor material as he constantly judges and berates her for her vices. At first glance, his attitude could be dismissed as understandable given her behavior and the norms of the era. The fact that he continues to malign her even after learning of her efforts to stop her father’s fascist activities and that she uses her vices to escape the guilt of failing to do so is nothing less than cruel. The script goes on to portray him in an even more negative light when he tasks her with selling herself under federal orders after previously chastising her for her promiscuity. His hypocrisy, and the film’s biting criticism of it, reaches its peak when Alicia reluctantly agrees to her assignment only to be confronted with rejection and condemnation from Devlin when she succeeds. In an interesting contrast, the film’s villain, Alex, is portrayed as understanding and tolerant when he not only pursues a relationship with but marries Alicia with full knowledge of her past. In its sympathetic portrayal of Alicia and its exploration of her relationships with the two very different men in her life, Notorious highlights the hypocrisies of sexual double standards in a way that few Hays Code era films would have dared. Through its scathing social and political commentary the film raises challenging questions that remain startlingly relevant today.

The film continues to thrill audiences thanks in large part to the stellar work of its cast. Claude Raines portrays Alex with a humanity and complexity that make him a surprisingly sympathetic villain. Leopoldine Konstantin rivals Hitchcock’s other infamously evil mother, Mrs. Bates, in her wonderfully wicked role as Alex’s oppressive mother. Cary Grant makes for an impressive anti-hero in a performance that combines his characteristic charm with an underlying bitterness and menace. Ingrid Bergman inhabits the outwardly tough but inwardly vulnerable Alicia in a way that will leave viewers as susceptible to her charms as Raines’ and Grant’s characters.

Easily one of the most intelligent films to tackle international intelligence, Notorious is another masterful effort from the master of suspense. At once a tale of political intrigue and a powerful political criticism, the film is far more than just another spy story. Through its gripping script and uniformly excellent performances the film weaves a twisting web of suspense and deceit that will leave viewers guessing until its final frame. With its scathing social commentary and subversive take on post-war politics Hitchcock’s 1946 hit remains Notorious.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Classics: The Formidable Females of Disney By Lauren Ennis

Since the 1937 premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Walt Disney Studios has become synonymous with excellence in family entertainment. The studio has faced criticism in recent years, however, regarding its depiction of female characters with modern critics accusing the studio of promoting outdated and sexist values. While many of the studio’s earlier efforts reflect the traditional values of the eras in which they were released, the studio has also created numerous heroines who are every bit as complex, clever, and capable as their male counterparts. This week, I’ll be shining the spotlight on three Disney ladies who personify what it means to fight like a girl.

I ain't afraid of no huns
Mulan: Joan of Arc had the Lord to guide her, she was a sister who really cooked, and then there’s Mulan. In the 1998 film Mulan, the title heroine defies both her family and the whole of society when she joins in China’s fight against the invading Huns. At the film’s start she resigns herself to the restrictive role society has assigned to her and prepares to enter an arranged marriage. Despite her best efforts, however, her unconventional personality shines through, leading the local matchmaker to deem her ‘unmarriageable’. She soon finds good use for her tomboyish lack of proprietary, however, when the emperor orders the conscription of one man from each household. To save her elderly father from the perils of battle she disguises herself as a man and enlists in his place. She then overcomes numerous physical and emotional challenges while shouldering the additional burden of concealing her identity, eventually becoming one of the best soldiers in her regiment. Just as her mission nears success, however, she faces ostracism once again when she is wounded in battle and her true identity is revealed. Despite being dishonorably discharged, she refuses to abandon her comrades and re-joins her regiment just in time to save China.

While Mulan’s deeds on the battlefield are the stuff of legend, it is her selflessness, humbleness, and resilience that make her an ideal role model. Throughout the film she dedicates herself to helping others both on and off the battlefield. It is this self-sacrifice that first prompts her to enlist and later leads her to return to her regiment even after her comrades reject her. As a result, her actions display heroism in its truest sense as she repeatedly risks her reputation and safety not for any personal glory or recognition, but to ensure the safety of her family and country. While she regularly faces physical dangers, it is her emotional resilience that holds greater resonance. Throughout the film she faces criticism from those around her, but rather than crumble she uses this criticism to motivate herself to succeed. Throughout her journey she also retains a sense of humbleness as she allows neither her fame nor her success to cloud her judgment. For a girl worth fighting alongside hop into the saddle with Mulan.

That slight come hither stare, it's witchcraft...
Esmeralda: When she first appears at the Festival of Fools Esmeralda is described as “the finest girl in France” and after one viewing of The Hunchback of Notre Dame you won’t have to wonder why. While she may not be a historic heroine or princess like many other Disney heroines, she is easily one of the most original and complex protagonists in all of Disney. At the film’s start she is struggling to earn a living as a dancer on the streets of Paris. When a group of soldiers harass her and accuse her of stealing the money that she legally earned, she refuses to tolerate either their accusations or racist taunts and defends herself despite the consequences. She later displays even more courage when she defends complete stranger Quasimodo against the wrath of the local mob for no reason other than because it is the right thing to do. She doesn’t stop at freeing Quasimodo from his attackers, however, as she then goes on to denounce both the mob for their abusive behavior and corrupt judge Claude Frollo for failing to hold them accountable. She continues to show compassion towards Quasimodo when she sets out to befriend him and teaches him to believe in himself when others shun him for his appearance. When her defiance inspires a fascination in Frollo that spirals into lustful obsession she repeatedly rejects his lecherous advances despite the power and influence that he possesses and threatens to use against her. Even when confronted with the terrible choice of offering herself to Frollo or facing execution she refuses to compromise her own values and submit to him. Throughout the film she is derided for her race, her profession, and her non-conformity, and yet she never loses sight of the fact that there are still others less fortunate then her. In a particularly poignant moment the script goes so far as to show that even in her prayers she puts others first when she says, “I ask for nothing, I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I”. While Frollo may describe her as a witch sent by the devil himself, Esmeralda consistently displays a moral courage, selflessness, and sense of justice that are nothing short of angelic. For a character living in the 15th century she possesses all the intelligence and independence of the most modern of women. From the moment that she whirls onto the screen Esmeralda dances to the beat of her own tambourine, providing an example that we could all aspire to.

Real women read
Belle: She’s a beauty but a funny girl that Belle, and the Beast and viewers alike love her all the more for it. Many consider Beauty and the Beast’s bookish heroine to be Disney’s first modern princess. Unlike her predecessors, Belle longs not for a prince, but instead to find her own place in the world. While the other girls in her small town are ready to settle down and start a family she remains determined to find something more beyond the confines of her ‘provincial life’. As a result, while the other girls in town are charmed by local ladies’ man Gaston, Belle rejects his repeated proposals without hesitation. She also admirably stays true to herself by pursuing the intellectual interests that make her a subject of constant gossip and speculation. Even as she maintains her independence, however, she still dedicates herself to helping others, especially her father. When the townspeople routinely mock Maurice for his forward thinking and accuse him of suffering from mental illness Belle remains firmly by her father’s side. After he disappears on his way to a nearby inventor’s fair she springs into action without hesitation and sets out alone to find him. Later, when she learns that her father is being held captive at the Beast’s castle she makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering to take Maurice’s place as the Beast’s prisoner. Even when confronted with the daunting reality of her new life as a prisoner in an enchanted castle she refuses to fall into despair and instead makes the best of her situation by forming bonds with the household staff. Despite her confined status, she also continues to assert herself in her relationship with the Beast  by insisting that he treat her with respect and learn to control his temper. Even in her relationship with the Beast, however, she displays loyalty and selflessness. This is first shown when she stays at the castle to make sure that the Beast receives medical care after he is injured, when she easily could have used his injury to her advantage and escaped. Belle proves her loyalty and kindness once again when she pleads with the Beast to free her in order to tend to her ailing father, but returns just in time to help the Beast in his battle against Gaston. Over the course of her fantastic adventure she overcomes overwhelming obstacles with an intelligence and ferocity that rivals those of any Disney hero. Whether she’s facing local gossip, enchanted spells, or villainous schemes Belle maintains a fundamental grace, selflessness, and optimism that make her a true beauty both inside and out.